VOL. 42 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 11, 2018
Memories of friendships and neighborhoods past
The now-empty porch of George and Kathleen Gordon’s home on 10th Avenue South -- Tim Ghianni/Leigh Singleton | The Ledger
Sitting on George M. Gordon’s porch swing on 10th Avenue South on a couple of occasions in the last few days allowed me to survey this gentrifying neighborhood – this is urban Nashville, after all – that since the 1980s has been one of the places where I’ve found peace.
And that’s what I was seeking again, a 10th Avenue chill-out or something like that. I’ve been covering the Waffle House slaughter for Reuters News Service – just the latest journalistic exploration of the darkest underside of the human spirt. Unfortunately, I also discovered the adrenaline that protects a lifelong newspaperman’s journey through the fear and loathing of evil doings no longer exists when a guy is 66.
Without that adrenaline-fired shield of youth, those murders just left me depressed, melancholy. Still asking “Why?” And knowing there’s no logical retort.
The 10th Avenue corridor through the Waverly-Belmont neighborhood doesn’t look much like it did back when I began to use it as my “quiet-time” route downtown back in the 1980s after settling into Crieve Hall, hoping any future kids would benefit from the highly-regarded elementary school.
Nor does it resemble the appearance in the early 1990s or whenever it was that I was forced to squeal my old Saturn (it really was a crappy old, plastic-like car) to a halt to avoid running right into the T-bone catastrophe that had happened split-seconds in front of me on 10th as I neared Bradford.
It was the day a relatively large man – not fat, just large – in overalls, a retired railroad worker (if I remember correctly, sometimes an inaccurate assumption at this age) and acclaimed neighborhood lawnmower repairman checked to make sure no one was dead …. Not a given, considering the collision’s ferocity. Then he walked a few paces south, right down the middle of 10th, to halt approaching traffic while waiting for the police and ambulance guys (I don’t know who called the cops, as that occurred before cell phones blighted interpersonal communication), but it may have been George’s wife, Kathleen, who was at the front door of their solid, red-brick bungalow.
On that day, I was on my way back downtown to the newsroom at 1100 Broadway after going out on a column search for the old Nashville Banner newspaper (R.I.P.). I had been out in Berry Hill and – as I do to this day when heading downtown – I cut over onto 10th, a wide, tree-lined avenue with beautifully landscaped yards, and for the most-part, well-tended homes back then owned or at least occupied mainly by black people.
(FYI, I did find on closer examination that a lot of those flowers in yards were artificial, offering good spring cheer even during brutal February. And several had Christmas lights hanging from gutters and cedar trees year-round, which brightened my spirits if I was driving home after dark or to work before dawn.)
Since I was stopped in the middle of the road that day, I rolled to the curb and asked the big guy with the buoyant smile if everyone was OK. He said “Yes!” and as the sirens and flashing lights came down the two streets, sealing me off for a few minutes, he waved me to his driveway.
I introduced myself. While he guided me up to his front porch and into this same porch swing, while shards of glass, crumpled fenders and blood were cleared from the avenue.
I got back to the newspaper late that day, using the convenient excuse I’d been “out looking for columns.” True enough, but the column was incidental to what I really gained, a man who became a trusted ally until the day he died. And, it turns out, well beyond.
That column, fashioned from a brotherly conversation on the swing – George lifted a chair out from his living room, so he could face me – was about the changes he’d seen in his neighborhood since he and Kathleen bought this house on August 20, 1964, as a nice place to raise their family.
But the neighborhood had changed. Yes, there were still a lot of good people here – probably a bit more than 99 percent black. But George pointed out nearby homes and a few hovels where gangs had invaded, where lawyers, guns and money were frequent callers. I was going to say “drugs” instead of “lawyers” in the line above, but I wouldn’t be true to my Baby Boomer roots and its perpetual soundtrack that includes that “Excitable Boy” Warren Zevon and his pal Jackson Browne.
But what I really gained that day on 10th was a friend, a fellow I’d subsequently stop and visit often if I saw him out in his yard. Sometimes he’d lead me out into the backyard, basically littered with the sheds where he repaired lawn mowers and other stuff. Or I’d be invited into the living room or the kitchen table, where Kathleen would serve me lemonade and we’d talk about life.
When I finally did have a family, I gave her a wallet photo of me, Suzanne and our Romanian treasures Emily and Joe, which she put on display with her own photos.
“I always tell people that’s my white family,” she said, with a happy laugh, often during the years.
Because I traversed this avenue and took its side streets, I found many good, hard-working family people to write about and often befriend. I can’t remember her name, but one Christmastime I walked across 10th to a home where the sidewalk was guarded by two concrete lions – the “why” of the lions was going to be my story – only to be invited inside by the woman who lived there.
She was beginning her holiday tradition of cooking 80 pounds of chitlins (chitterlings to you immigrants from Orange County or White Plains). Fortunately, she was just beginning the cook cycle that day, so I could write about the joy-filled chitlin lady without sampling the feast.
(A decade or two before “Ole Steve” Pettus – an acclaimed gospel singer, cousin of Wilma Rudolph and operator of a barbecue operation just outside Clarksville – had given me my virginal and final offering of chitlins. God, I miss Steve and the Pettus Family Singers, but that’s another story. Miss Wilma, too: Beautiful, brilliant and, of course, speedy.)
The other day I left what to me will forever be George and Kathleen’s porch and walked across 10th to find out if the kindly chitlin woman still lived there. A millennial-type white guy, his smile framed by sweaty stubble, said he had bought the home from her and he is restoring it. But the lions remained.
Anyway, the times (as my pal Bob told me when I was what they called “a hippie”) they are a-changing. And they have been for quite some time.
George – his robust body turned by cancer scrag – died February 19, 2005. His family had summoned me to the home on that day because he wanted to say goodbye.
I thought about that last week when I gazed at the front, right window (no, I’m not a creeper, I had banged and banged on the door and walked around the house hollering “anybody here” before settling on the porch). I didn’t peek inside, but remembered on that grim February day, “Gunsmoke” (or perhaps “Bonanza”) played on an old television while I quietly said goodbye in that same room, where a hospital bed had been set up to aid in George’s passing.
The next day, I was listed as a “dear friend” among the survivors listed in the obit. More important than any damned journalism award I’d ever won, but sadly a treasured newspaper clipping that like most in my personal archives was washed away when the Flood of May 2010 gobbled up half my house, including my office.
I visited Kathleen some afterward, not often enough, but she’d thrown her free time into volunteering as a tutor at nearby Fall-Hamilton Enhanced Option Elementary. She lived in the house until 2011 – when she sold it as white gentry began reoccupation of a neighborhood that decades before had helped define the term “white flight.”
Plenty of proud little cottages and bungalows still stand, but there sometimes are as many as four “tall-skinnies” on a vacated by steam-shovel lot. Nice-looking homes, that’s for sure. Just like those which have forever changed once-unique neighborhoods like Green Hills, Oak Hill, The Nations and the faux-urban homeland occupied by hot chicken, tomato-tossing and veggie-consuming hipsters who live in the shadow of what I still think of as Adelphia Coliseum. Yep. LP Field, really.
Again, the times they are a-changing as Bob said to me and Tom Petty when they helped me (at least in spirit … mine) deal with the flood damage to my home.
Anyway, after visiting the porch, I set off to find Kathleen, a trail that ended at Wedgewood Apartments Unit No. 506. Yep, some of the neighbors remembered her. Nice woman. Quiet. Small. Don’t know where she went.
I’d guess she’s probably with George, but, Mrs. Gordon, if you are reading this, give me a call. I have a more current family picture I’d like to give you. Kids are grown. My hair’s pure white.
So, I returned to 10th Avenue South and again scaled the porch, sitting on that swing for a few more moments, looking out at the scene of that long-ago wreck.
I walked down the street to a relatively new building called “The Waverly” just to see what the neighborhood flavor is now that young and mostly white bodies in yoga pants instead of flowered dresses, designer jeans rather than overalls, continue their cheerful conquest of what remains one of my favorite neighborhoods.
Inside Bongo & Bakery, I saw many flavors of folks visiting or working on their laptops. Employees were a bit shy about giving their names, but Jones – “That’s what they call me, just Jones” – a 30-year-old white guy – complimented my Beatles shirt and continued his barista magic.
“You want something to drink, coffee or something?” he asked. I declined, as I was already over-heated from my meander down the not-so-sleepy city sidewalks.
“Most people who come in here seem to really like us,” says Jones, who commutes from the Nolensville Road area.
“I love this neighborhood. The people.”
He adds a few other complimentary things about his customers and job before I bid him adieu and go next-door to Inner-Light Yoga. Gotta admit, I was hoping to go in and see some glistening-with-sweat contorted bodies, but it wasn’t open. Probably better for me, as women in yoga pants are difficult on my heart.
George M. Gordon’s former home can be seen in the center of this photo of quickly-gentrifing 10th Avenue. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
Anyway, I wandered around back of the Waverly building where I encountered, “Emily- you-don’t-need-my-last-name-do-you?” as she sat at a patio table just outside the door into Circa.
“We’re a small, women-run, women-owned design studio,” she explains after a bit of playful prodding.
She says she’s a project manager and they use digital technology in their designs … before she picks up her phone – I didn’t hear it buzz/ring/vibrate – and maybe talks to someone on the other end. “I really don’t have time now,” says Emily, cheerful even as she shoos me.
Around front, I get a much-warmer reception from Desyree Raskin, who is client services manager for Face, a nice-smelling place that specializes in facials, brows, makeup, etc.
Facials are going on (being installed?) in the back room, but there are three mirrored bays where women (or men or those still discovering) can come in for foundations and the works.
A very attractive woman – I ask Desyree if it’s OK in this #MeToo era to tell someone they look nice and she tells me “of course” and smiles. This pretty woman in a cool, hot-weather dress has worked here since the business opened a couple of years ago. And she’s lived longer in this neighborhood.
“I’ve been around this area a very long time,” she explains, noting that she is a part of Nashville’s facial improvement industry (or actually, I’d call it “art”).
“Our owner (Sheila Davis) fell in love with this neighborhood,” she adds. “She didn’t want the hustle and bustle of 12th.”
That once peaceful, primarily residential neighborhood around what was Becker’s Bakery is a couple of blocks to the west and now bustles with millennials eating barbecue, drinking craft beer and living in tall-skinnies or condos. They call it “12 South” or “12South” and they gather at Sevier Park on Tuesdays for the farmers market and food trucks.
Desyree says neither did her boss want the facial art studio downtown. “And this is a nice compromise.”
This intelligent young woman points out the employees love the neighborhood and one of them even lives within walking distance.
“And I live seven minutes away,” she says, noting that she actually moved to 10th South before the Caucasian invasion.
“I lived in a condo up there by the corner,” Desyree adds, nodding north. “A not-so-nice man from the neighborhood busted out the window of my car (a relatively old Jetta) and stole my car. The police were right with me, taking the report, when he drove by (in it) again.”
The man never was arrested, but he did his damage before the car was recovered. “Every CD I’ve ever owned was in that car,” she points out, admitting with a note of shared melancholy that the CD era is on hold at the very least for now. “But that was every CD I’ve ever owned.”
The CDs were gone, the car interior trashed when the car was recovered. “I moved not long after,” Desyree recalls. But she stayed in the neighborhood.
Course bad guys can be found anywhere, just ask the folks out at the Antioch Waffle House whose bloody tragedy sent me to this neighborhood again for a couple of days of reflection and introduction. And peace.
Again, telling Desyree it was nice to meet an attractive, self-assured professional woman, I go back out on 10th and walk to the house at 2217 that used to be George Gordon’s.
I notice that a pickup truck has arrived while I’ve been gone, and I go wave at the man in the back yard and ask if I can come visit.
Alan Minchew, 60, tells me he bought this house and yard from Kathleen back in 2011.
“I believed this neighborhood was definitely coming back and I needed to get some rental property for my retirement,” explains the lifelong rental/real estate professional.
He’s cleaned out the back yard – not an easy task, as George had it filled with outbuildings for his mower repair and other ventures. Three renters live in the house, for which he collects $1,950 a month – low for a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in a revitalizing neighborhood. “Actually, it really had just one bedroom downstairs and the upstairs was open when I bought it, so I added the bedrooms and the bath,” he tells me.
He also added closets (those of us in older Nashville homes know for some reason closets must have been poorly regarded 60 or 80 years ago.)
Alan and his crew also just now are completing a back-building that faces the alley. It’s a two-car garage with storage area downstairs and a one-bedroom, one-bath up the stairwell.
“That’s for my daughter, Kate,” he explains, adding that she works in the Lipscomb University Study Abroad program and is “coming home” to do more work at that nearby university after wandering various L.U. study abroad outposts.
A gentle fellow, he needs to get back down to his home in Franklin, but he takes the time to recall the 2011 closing when Kathleen E. Gordon and a daughter sat across the table from him and they signed the papers.
“They wanted $240,000, but I offered them $190,000, and they took it,” he notes of that 2011 encounter.
“She (Kathleen) was really nice, small, kind of feeble-looking,” he says, and when I tell him I think perhaps she’s gone, he nods.
The daughter, he can’t remember her name, has occasionally stopped by to check out what has been happening to the house where George Gordon died after raising his family here.
But the point is not that he died here. He lived here. For me, at least, his jovial spirit remains.
“Everybody loves this house,” Alan adds. “It’s got a great location. And, it’s been a good property.”
Not just now, as this neighborhood enjoys new life, but ever since 1964, when my old friend George and lovely, proud Kathleen brought their family here.